Editor's note: A version of this review originally ran during the 2012 Sundance Film Festival. "The House I Live In" is available for download on iTunes and various other video-on-demand platforms starting today.
"The war on drugs" has been a part of the national vernacular for so long that it seems old fashioned. Eugene Jarecki's Sundance-winning documentary "The House I Live In" unravels that overused term and if his approach is exhaustive and sometimes overbearingly detailed, it also reveals a troubling and paradoxical system of hierarchical, lower-class oppression.
Constructing a vast collage of voices from virtually every facet of the drug world, from dealers to officers and the people impacted by both sides, Jarecki examines every shard to reveal a severely broken system.
Extending beyond talking heads, Jarecki inserts himself into the narrative to explain his reasons for making the movie. An introductory segment touches on the impact of the Holocaust on his family and why the "never again" philosophy that came out of that experience should have universal application.
It's a questionable starting point, but Jarecki gradually focuses his perspective. Singling out an African-American woman named Nanny who worked for his family during his childhood, Jarecki explains how the impact of drug use on her own relatives made him notice the greater effect of the national problem on impoverished communities nationwide.
Jarecki uses this prologue as a conduit for the smart and informative survey that follows. Strewn together using a fluid structure and Robert Miller's dramatic score, "The House I Live In" succeeds as a sprawling portrait of how the war on drugs is a self-perpetuating system that contributes to the very problem it alleges to solve.
While Jarecki has clearly done his homework, he's smart to cede the bigger-picture observations to those who know better -- in most cases, Baltimore journalist and "The Wire" co-creator David Simon, whose precise indictments routinely clarify the movie's perspective. "What drugs haven't destroyed," Simon says, "the war against them has."
That war, which Jarecki reports to have cost the U.S. government $1 trillion since Richard Nixon officially launched it 40 years ago, has more to do with mind games and bureaucracy than any attempt to fix a continuing problem. "Every war starts with propaganda," Simon says. Jarecki astutely unravels that assertion, turning "The House I Live In" into the unofficial follow-up to his equally incisive 2005 documentary rant against the military-industrial complex, "Why We Fight."
Once again, Jarecki excels at choosing the right human interest stories to propel his arguments. However, the personalization of the narrative adds an unnecessary layer of white-liberal guilt that obstructs his otherwise foolproof essay on a distinctly American problems. The depth of his research allows him to draw connections between numerous concerned parties. Jarecki finds links between multiple generations afflicted by the drug war, at one point even cross fading from the mugshot of a convicted dealer to the earlier mugshot of his father.
Despite its broad topic, the filmmaker brings a clear perspective to his rants. Exploring the rash of drug arrests, he follows officers as they respond to financial incentives in their quest to track down low-level dealers. The result, as one subject points out, is a glut of offenders doing "a whole lot of time for not a lot of crime."
Even while simplifying the problem, Jarecki manages to put it in historical context: Stretching back to the 1800s, he finds the origin of his subject in the illegalization of opium to provide a rationale for the oppression of the Chinese immigrants who frequently smoked it.
"The House I Live In" occasionally makes its point too strongly, circling back to a regular host of characters and suffering from repetition. However, Jarecki's biographical approach snaps into focus with a climax that reinforces the debilitating effect of drug abuse on family life. His documentary is a personal work not because the director chooses to make himself a part of the story, but rather because he implicates all of us in it.
Criticwire grade: B+
HOW WILL IT PLAY? Its topicality, critical acclaim and Sundance buzz now firmly established, "The House I Live In" should perform well on VOD, where audiences interested in its issue will swarm to it.